Introduction: Photography among the Arts
An installation view of Trine Søndergaard’s series of photographs Strude in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek from 2010 shows marble heads of Roman emperors in the room behind (fig. 1). These heads, ranking among the oldest cases of portraiture, show individualized faces looking straight ahead at the viewer. They seem an ideal backdrop for Søndergaard’s photographs, but not because these are portraits, for they are not, although they do relate to portraiture: rather, they are anti-portraits, challenging the individualism of that typically “Western” genre. It is the contrast in the apparent similarity that makes them such a striking backdrop. They lend Søndergaard’s photographs what seems like a solemn quality, something we associate with the classical, an association surely promoted by the off-white marble busts in the next gallery. Solemn, but with a wink: a beggar’s opera, where competitive ambition and humorous mocking are indistinguishable and prepare the way for something altogether different. The artist made no concessions in terms of beauty; but there is no ideological collusion either. They present a diachronic “discussion” instead. The artist calls it “stasis.”1
Whether in the form of Roman portrait sculpture or painted portraits of seventeenth-century burghers, the genre of portraiture can be equated with power and its display. Whereas Roman sculptors painstakingly rendered individuality in recalcitrant stone at a time when individuality was the reserve of the powerful, Søndergaard deploys the medium of portraiture to make images of faces in which individuality is overshadowed by similarity. The Roman heads are formally similar, but their facial features differ starkly. In this respect they polemically compete with the larger Greek busts of idealized gods. In contrast, Søndergaard’s Danish faces are hidden, turning away, or otherwise obscured. Here the artworks themselves, formally comprising a series, are very different. Installed in beautiful frames on a blue-gray wall above a dark-blue floor, one cannot avoid associations with the portrait galleries of royalty in old, prestigious castles. At first sight, the installation fools visitors into seeing a decorative, prestigious display celebrating individual importance. But these images are not paintings, however much their installation gives them a similar prestige and their aesthetic elaboration makes them “painterly.” They are photographs.
What do these differences in materials and media mean? According to common thinking, photography is that click of the shutter that eternalizes a moment in time—a split second, and whatever happened there and then is fixed. A photograph stills time, and thus, by making it last, carries it forward. Strangely, then, photography, the technique of stillness, is known as an art of time, of duration, of indeterminate lengths of what in reality is a fraction, almost nothing, of time. And in an era of moving images, photographs, rather than being near obsolete, appear capable of making things endure precisely because they are still images. As memory aids and evidence of the tangible presence, once upon a time, of children who are now elderly, or of divas now long gone, or of dear ones no longer with us, photographs help us live with the relentless passage of time, and the subsequent presence of death.
If photography is the contemporary art of the still image, then a book of photographic art titled Stasis is likely to be self-reflective, examining its medium’s most characteristic and effective properties. In accordance with the standard view described above, what these properties are is commonly thought to be derived from the highly personal. And indeed, some personal, which is not to say sentimental, reflections of key cultural thinkers of the twentieth century, the age of photography, have endurably influenced our perception of photography. These reflections will be my starting point for looking at Søndergaard’s work, and while I will argue that they get me started on the wrong foot, I will also assert that this wrong beginning is actually the best way to arrive at a different perspective, and then pluralize that alternative. For Søndergaard’s artwork extends its effects, features, and meanings in many different directions. These photographs do not stand alone; rather, they relate to the other arts in a forceful dialogue that engages the histories of the arts.
In his influential meditation on photography, Roland Barthes marveled at the “pastness” of the photograph, the “ça a été” (“this has been”) quality of the photographic image. “I am looking at eyes that looked at the emperor,” he wrote, indicating simultaneously the photograph’s relentless deadness and its capacity to overcome death by placing the incurably dead in the present.2 The allusion to emperors, and the awe in the tone, resonate with the installation of Søndergaard’s work in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and their neighbors, the Roman emperors. But this allusion is incidental; Barthes’ interest is in the personal, unique, relational quality of photographs, a relationality that is inflected by irreversible time, and consequently by mourning. Only in photographs could he see his then-dead mother as he had never seen her: as a little girl. Time, thus, can be reversed, stopped in its tracks, and stalled in its flight.
Siegfried Krakauer, who wrote an essay on photography in 1927 (which was only published in English in 1993), initially emphasized that magic with the same strength. In the first paragraph, contemplating a film diva on a magazine cover, he writes “Time: the present,” and the second paragraph begins with “Is that what Grandmother looked like?” because the photograph is sixty years old, its model as old or dead as his grandmother, her image young forever.3 But in the end, for Krakauer this is deception, not magic.
Krakauer’s contemporary, literary writer Marcel Proust, wrote a classic, emblematic piece on photography and death about his beloved grandmother. Of these three thinkers, Proust is most explicit about the role of the viewer, who is central to the thought of all three writers, but in his case the viewer actively interferes in the making of the image. The story recounts how in order that Proust might have a beautiful image of her to keep after her death, which she knows to be imminent, his grandmother asks a family friend, Robert de Saint-Loup, to take a photograph of her. Here we see the same interweaving of the photograph with love and death that Barthes described. Marcel, who does not know that his grandmother is near death, is extremely irritated by what he perceives as her coquetry. This irritation provokes him to extinguish cruelly the expression of joy that the old woman had hoped to preserve for him in the photograph.
However, the grandmother’s photograph is also indirectly a photograph of Robert, who clicked the shutter, and of Marcel, who caused the sadness in the model’s eyes. The model and the viewer, the commissioner and the client, engage in a fierce struggle for power over the image. They are struggling for the power to determine what the image will be and what future it will have, and the power to control the brief click that immortalizes what will nonetheless slip away: the past.
In these three meditations, the key question revolves around the communication between the figure in the photograph and the viewer, whose gaze positions that figure in the present, always belatedly, and this communication is mediated by the photographer. The photograph, based on the index as trace, always refers to a time past, but does so for a viewer in the present. It is this viewer who receives the gift of the gaze, the possibility of communicating with someone from the past and thus of enriching his present moment with a temporal thickness.
For Barthes, a photograph was a way to get acquainted with his mother as a girl, as if reversing time were a possibility. For Krakauer, it was a trigger for imagining that aging could be stopped. Barthes found the potential of photography to reverse time comforting, while Krakauer, a relentless critic of his contemporary culture, saw photography’s replacement of memory as a destructive force. For Proust’s narrator, it was an opportunity to influence the image, albeit unwittingly. All three thinkers thus fill the photograph with time by means of an exchange of gazes. Trine Søndergaard does not. Her images are not being exchanged in a communicative game. They are more rigorously still; they harbor but do not foreground traces of the past. They evoke memories, but these are not personal. And although time, duration, and inter-temporal reversibility are part of what they achieve, they do nothing of the emotional work our three thinkers foreground. They just are. That is what Stasis means.
Both of her series of women wearing elaborate headdresses—Strude and Guldnakke—and the series Interior, taken inside empty, abandoned buildings, refuse the exchange of gazes. The viewer may make a strong effort to see pastness in the images. And to be sure, the headgear in the former two series and the emptiness in the latter emanate a historicity that can make one dream away in nostalgia. The women wearing these caps in the past—who were they, how did they live? The inhabitants of the abandoned buildings—what did they do all day long, in that golden or silvery light? But these are precisely the questions Søndergaard refrains from answering. We barely, if at all, see women, and those we do see surely do not wear those elaborate headdresses on an everyday basis. The caps do not “describe” their individuality or their lives. And the vistas in the abandoned buildings possess that golden light because they have been abandoned. Now empty, there is no air streaming through, no movement disturbing the specks of dust that paint the light golden. There were never people there, not in these spaces as we see them now. When they were in use, they did not look at all like this. For these photographs, invoking our three classical thinkers seems utterly wrong.4
The Image as Fiction
Instead of seeking to recapture a past that never was, yet accounting for the role of time in this medium of duration, it might be more helpful to look at some episodes of the history of images and bring those into the present, not in an effort to write the (linear) history of images, but to generate a dialogue between the episodes that seem to have relevance for our understanding of and engagement with Søndergaard’s artworks. If we ignore the specifics of the modern medium for a moment and take the visual characteristics of the images as a starting point, their stillness, which forges an association with Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), is where we must begin. Like the work of the master from Delft, Søndergaard’s series of photographs was made in a specific place of which nothing is visible—the island of Fanø for Strude.5 Nothing of the outside world is shown, even though the historical and geographical situation is known. The images are devoid of context, although strongly context-bound.
Vermeer would recognize the subtle work with color—the blue in the headgear, the golden light in the interiors—and the way light seems almost material, solid, delimited by clear albeit soft lines. In his paintings we find both the detailed rendering of the headdresses and the faces they adorn or hide, and the special light that we see in Søndergaard’s abandoned buildings. He would approve of the extreme care taken in rendering details, whether of faces or the elements obscuring them, or of interiors and the windows that open spaces up to the outside. Vermeer’s 1665 Girl with a Pearl Earring (fig. 2), updated in a popular film by Peter Webber in 2003 based on a novel by Tracy Chevalier from 1999, is a good example.
The master from Delft shows us why details matter, and how light (golden) and color (hues of blue and yellow set off by white) bring to the fore both composition and the aura of an everyday world gilded by art. Vermeer’s woman, through her look alone, can trigger romanticizing thoughts as well as quite gender- and class-specific responses, as the novel and film demonstrate. Why she would have a pearl earring became a key question. The answer? She had to be a servant girl with whom the master is enamored, and so on. Let the romance begin. This romantic thinking endeavors to overwrite the one impossible explanation: that she, a simple girl, just possesses a pearl earring. This appears to be the price we must pay to get a larger public interested in Old Master art: we must reconfirm stereotypes. What is overlooked in romantic responses to Vermeer’s work is the fact of painting and, as I explain in the remainder of this essay, the difference between the image and the picture.
The young woman’s head, like those of most of the models in Søndergaard’s two series, is also firmly encased in a tightly wrapped scarf, so that barely a trace of hair can be seen. This makes her face look like a portrait. However, Vermeer scholarship has affirmed that since this face is not personalized, it is not a portrait. Because the model has not been identified as a person socially high enough to warrant her portrait being commissioned, it is considered a tronie, the seventeenth-century Dutch term for a typical, generalized face. At the same time, tronies were more often than not caricatures shaped by class prejudices, and this face, with its clear eyes and sensuously half-opened lips, conveys an intimate, perhaps eroticizing relationship to the viewer.
Thanks to the facial expression, the soft, shiny texture of the thick, high-quality moiré silk jacket, where a touch of blue-gray appears and disappears amid the ochre, and the nuanced hues of the blue in the headdress that respond to the jacket’s tones invite a tactile gaze, a desire to caress and touch. The shaping of the eyes is congruent with the form of the earring, with the white on the left and the darker portion on the right in both cases, thereby establishing an iconicity between eyes and pearl, making both equally desirable, and perhaps equally valuable. Due to my own interests at this moment, I can see in this resemblance of eyes and pearl a hint of what later, in the nineteenth century, became “emotional capitalism.”6
And this is where Søndergaard’s heads differ most emphatically from Vermeer’s masterpiece. The girls and women in these images literally turn away from that visual flirtation. Even in the rare cases where we see a face, including a view of the eyes, the women do not look at us. Take the girl with the white scarf, the most modest of the headdresses (fig. 3). She, too, has an earring, and it looks like a pearl also, resonating with the buttons on her jacket. But this earring does not trigger the same questions. It is not congruent with the girl’s eyes. Nor is her mouth half-opened in sensuous appeal. In stark contrast to Vermeer’s young woman, who, in comparison, seems decidedly coquettish, this girl refrains from expressing anything.
Yes, she is beautiful, no doubt about it. Every detail of her is flawless—her perfectly shaped eyebrows, full, unpainted pink lips, blue eyes (of which even the lower lashes are so clearly visible we can count them), and soft pink cheek, as well as the soft sheen on the unblemished skin that connects the tip of her nose with her upper lip and the white ribbon tied in a bow on her forehead a bit to the left, just where the soft light coming from the right strikes the model most forcefully.
But what kind of discourse is this? Uninvited, I am detailing, and worse, judging, by calling the face beautiful, the face of another person who refrains from engaging in eye contact with me, merging the cotton of her scarf with the pearl-like sheen of her skin, and her depiction in a flat image with her actual physical beauty, as if it were all the same. There seems to be something wrong with this description, because Søndergaard tells us without words, through her artistic work, “this is not a girl” any more than Magritte’s painted pipe was a pipe, as Foucault famously reminded us.7 It is an image and a picture at once. These words are not synonymous, and as a consequence what may be said about one may not necessarily be valid about the other. But what it is not is a person. Søndergaard’s conception of photography and of art as practiced in these works, then, merits further reflection.
Wrong-headed as it was, the outcome of my compulsion to judge was neither wrong nor arbitrary. The image pushed me to do it. As an image, it is also beautiful, a perfect composition. The even, gray background, comparable to Vermeer’s dark-green one, makes even the subtlest of skin colors stand out as striking. The gray-blue eyes enhance the navy blue of the jacket. One braided strand of (muted) colors breaks the even, almost monochromatic tone of the image. Green stalks and leaves, a red flower, and a lavender flower travel down the dark blue of the jacket. So, where do we go from here? Well, anywhere; a plurality of possible avenues opens up.
If we consider the image for a moment in abstract terms, focusing, for example, on color only and considering the difference between white (of the scarf) and “white” (of the skin), then a world of chromatic difference appears. This difference brings up, ever so subtly, meanings surrounding skin color in the contemporary world. Or it doesn’t, for I am not imputing such intended meanings to the artist. I do not consider the artist herself any more communicative than the figures in her images. Nor do I expect all viewers to think of the demise of racial categories when they view these works. All I can say with a measure of confidence is that, encased in gray and framed by white and navy, an illuminated face shines and looks away.8
In another of Søndergaard’s photographs, the face is not just turned away but hidden by a woolen knit cap, a kind of balaclava that barely leaves a slit for the eyes (fig. 4). In the image, one eye can be seen; the other has been hidden not by the cap but by the light and the shadow that, through contrast, reveals the light. This shadow-light game points to the chiaroscuro of photography in the wake of the likes of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Artemisia Gentileschi, and other artists who put the half of faces they wanted us most keenly to look at in shadow. Shadow, not light, is the pointer. These painters were intuiting the later arrival of photography, almost making its invention inevitable.
The border of the cap is navy, and on its top is an ornamental pattern of pink. Below, a checkered blue scarf accompanied by two other blue scarves with regular patterns drapes over a knit top, also navy, with a white pattern of leaves or flowers—a composition, almost, of navy and white, dark blue and light blue, with a touch of pink. In contrast to the image with the girl wearing the white scarf, here the gray background, with a focus on color only as if the image were abstract, seems bluer, and the one visible, downcast eye grayer.
How should we put these two images side by side? The only arrangement that makes sense is to make the two girls look in opposite directions (fig. 5), for both avoid making eye contact with the viewer, or with anyone else, for that matter. To place them facing each other would only make the combination incongruous. The light comes from the right in both images. Hence, while it illuminates most of the face of the girl with the white scarf, in the image in which the face is mostly hidden, all the light can do is pick out the bit of skin to the right of the one visible eye—whose eyelid, as a result, seems extremely white—and the bridge of the nose on the same side. Light remains powerless before such emphatic refusals to look.
In another image showing one of the most modest headdresses, barely more than a ribbon, the girl wearing it turns her entire head away from the viewer, with her blonde hair standing in for the balaclava of the other one and her eyes cast down entirely (fig. 6). Photography, in this series, appears as a screen, an opaque one that bluntly tells the viewer off. Less than the women in the photograph, the image itself seems engaged in an “aesthetic of disengagement,” in a refusal of intersubjectivity.
This is what Christine Ross says in her study of the presence of and relation to depression in contemporary art.9 However, whereas these girls and young women categorically refuse to look at us and never smile, they do not give the impression of being depressed. The idea of depression seems irrelevant to them; they would never reveal that much of themselves. This is due to the fact that the feeling of disengagement is a characteristic of the image, not of the model. The image, photographic and thus indexically bound to the pre-photographic reality of which it is an image, is nevertheless a fiction: contrived, constructed, made up. Under the guidance of the artist-photographer-director, the girls “play at” or “perform” disengagement. It is qua fiction that the image disengages. As a representation on a visible surface, as a trigger of acts of seeing and, hence, events of visuality, an image can be analyzed, commented on, and critiqued, but it cannot be divided, lest it be destroyed and cease to be itself: effective, meaningful—a bearer of affect. The model, to put it crudely, no longer exists as such after the image—of which she is an integral, not a separate, part—has been made.
Picture versus Image
What changes when we consider Søndergaard’s works pictures rather than images? As pictures, two-dimensional visual color plates showing us something, the photographs can more easily be considered to “express” something, albeit again, not by means of the conduit of the model and her (non-)face, but in places where a connection between on- and offscreen surfaces imposes itself. I propose this distinction: while an image is indivisible and “just there,” a picture is meaningful, either as a whole or in parts, establishing or just intimating connections with its outside—not objectively, but in terms of engaging viewers to speculate about what they see. Hence, it is open to a diversity of interpretations. Now we no longer talk about the model’s perfect skin or the light that paints that perfection, but of the potential of certain lines, planes, stains, and figures to create or suggest meaning. We speak of a picture of something or someone, and here we mean a representation. However, due to the abuse of this term as meaning “imitation,” in a misinterpretation of Aristotle’s concept of mimesis, I prefer to call it presentation: making present, rather than calling back an earlier (“re-”)existence. A picture is future-oriented: it triggers further work on it by subsequent viewers.
A picture presents and offers up for interpretation, association, and further reflection something that is visible. And what is visible in these pictures is not the faces but the act of turning away the face, the gaze, and the potential for interconnection. Could this turning away mean something like depression if we consider the work a picture and believe it does depict something? Ross mentions the primary symptom of depression to be an “exhaustion of the cognitive act of discernment,” which entails loss of pleasure (an emotion that is neither pleasure nor displeasure but a lack of such affects); and, through its
symptoms of self-absorption, inhibition, reduced communication, and identification with death, it elaborates a rupture of intersubjectivity.10
Note that discernment is also the deeper meaning of the word “criticism.” Loss of affect cuts the images off from engagement by the viewer, and hence, also from the possibility of criticism. And loss of discernment makes innovative interpretations impossible. Can we then consider these works pictures of depression? Not really.
The one image that appears a bit exceptional in Søndergaard’s series presents a girl whose face is entirely and symmetrically directed toward the viewer (fig. 7), so symmetrically, in fact, that the line between light and shadow runs down the middle of her nose. However, this is also the work in which the figure’s eyes are most emphatically turned away, so much so that they lose their symmetry, with the left eye narrower than the right one. This girl wears a navy-colored sweater with tiny pink flowers knitted into it whose green leaves respond to the dark green silk scarf with yellow bands.
The pattern on her sweater is similar to that of the top of the balaclava worn by the girl with only one eye visible. The background of this one, although still gray, seems more greenish. This effect of the background wall taking on the hues of the girls’ clothing may be the result of a focus on color. But it does foreground the unity of the image. Yet, as a picture of … in this case, a girl’s act of strongly looking away, Ross’s interpretation of contemporary art as responding to depression—as distinct from earlier art that resonated with melancholy—comes closest to something we might think of. Note that I can only say this when speaking about a picture, not about a living girl.
One end of the large, red ribbon on her bonnet that turns the entire face into something like a Christmas package falls on the girl’s forehead, casting a shadow there. This shadow makes the structure of the lace that surrounds the bonnet more visible. Indeed, it is thanks to that tiny patch of shadow that we can see that the upper half of the lace ribbon is made white by a lining, whereas the lower half has the characteristic transparency of lace that foregrounds the delicacy of lace-as-work. This brings the idea of work into competition with that of depression and its passivity, its incapacity for work. And then we see work in the picture as much as in the lace. The tip of the ribbon that casts the shadow also turns the somewhat oblong face into a heart-shaped surface. Framed between the large, lush, shiny ribbon and the silk scarf that covers the girl’s neck up to her chin, the face becomes a picture, and the picture as a whole, a work of handicraft. Lace meets photography. Both can be seen as refined, expert work or craft. And craft is the traditional “other” of art. But this is a late-modern form of “othering,” for at the time of our Golden Age painters, craft was not as clearly distinguished from art.
Now, once the work is seen in this way, it becomes appealing to confirm that the picture as a whole depicts, in the sense of presenting, depression, for a rupture of intersubjectivity characterizes that affliction. But a depressive state cannot be attributed to the girl, now a framed picture whose body occupies but a portion of the picture plane. Although “she” looks a lot less engaging or self-confident than, say, the girl with the white scarf, the latter, as we have seen, is no more interested in us viewers than this red-ribboned one. So, if this picture seems more likely to “express” or “convey” a depressive state, it is the picture as a whole—of which, we now realize, the face is but a small element—that ruptures intersubjectivity. The red ribbon becomes a poignant sign—depiction—of the state of objectification of the face and its encasing—the picture and its frame. But all this, paradoxically, results from the triple work of the lace-maker, the hat-maker, and the picture-maker, none of whom can be qualified as depressive. The girl modeling for this work has nothing to do with the possibility of this being a depiction of depression.
Again, what I just wrote seems wrong in the face of the formal—chromatic, compositional, and light-produced textural—aspects that turn the picture “of something” into an artwork, one of a photographic “nature.” As such, the last work I discussed as a picture can equally be seen as a response to the Vermeer, a response to one of the world’s masterpieces of painting. In particular the distribution of light on the face, along with the softness of the print of the nevertheless extremely detailed image, recalls the Dutch master’s refined touch. Why, though, would that similarity matter? It matters because in a reversal of time—the one sought by the early theorists of photography—or, in other words, in an anachronistic perspective I have called “preposterous,” we can imagine that Vermeer, standing corrected by Søndergaard’s bonneted girls, would hasten to assert that he, too, had avoided flirtation with the viewer in many, if not all, of his pictures. Had he known that the Girl with the Pearl Earring would end up in a romance about his life and be based on inequality, we might imagine he’d say with an apologetic shrug that he should not have painted the image that way.11
If we see the fact that the face is turned toward the viewer as a sign that, when the turn of Vermeer’s face is completed, nothing is left but to cast down one’s eyes, then it is a response, and the world of images gets involved. Vermeer appears to agree, considering the alternative options he explored. Yes, he would come to realize, after seeing Søndergaard’s series Strude and Guldnakke (to which I will return in a moment): the milkmaid is too busy working to bother looking at the viewer (fig. 8), and the sleeper too tired from work to do so (fig. 9), while the woman with the white headdress is more interested in the outside world than in us (fig. 10), and the laughing girl, more in the man she is chatting with (and maybe doing more with) than in our curiosity (fig. 11). In these works, Vermeer opposes to the enticement of amorous contact or aesthetic contemplation—the two potential meanings of the Girl with the Pearl Earring—the alternative occupations of, respectively, work, after-work fatigue, travel, and sociality, including sex. None of these alternatives are visible in Søndergaard’s Strude series. Her rejection of eye contact is more radical.
So, what do the white bow on the left of the face, the sole-shaped opening in the balaclava, the tiny strip of lace, barely a centimeter under the small patch of black decorated with a single red flower (the blonde girl), or the shadow that foregrounds the lace do to these image-pictures to turn them, qua photographs, into artworks? A first answer to this question is work, craft—the delicate effort to make something, and make it beautiful. Here, Vermeer would be jubilant, recognizing a fellow worker. All his efforts—like pinning a nail into the canvas and attaching strings to it to get the perspectival lines right, or his painstakingly detailed craft that makes the light and colors just right for an image that is both shiny and soft, precise and dreamy—all of it was applied by Søndergaard in collaboration with the tools of her own medium and time in order to achieve a similar stillness, something she calls stasis.
Both artists use their craft to pay homage to craft, to honor work by means of work. For Vermeer, it took months to achieve such stasis. For Søndergaard … well, something of that order. Perhaps not months, but not the blink of an eye either, for we are far from the click-of-the-shutter conception of photography here. Like Vermeer, who would be anxious to earn her approval and collegiality, our contemporary artist honors work with work, juxtaposing one craft to another, and thus refusing the gratuitous individuality attached to high birth and passive inheritance. In doing so, she avoids facile referentiality of a dualistic “this means that” kind. That, too, is one of the effects of the turned-away gazes and faces.
In a second series called Guldnakke Søndergaard focuses on headdresses again, this time not from a specific place but from a particular tradition and social situation: Guldnakke, or “golden necks,” were a traditional piece of headwear for well-to-do women in the mid-nineteenth-century Danish countryside. This tradition has a fine touch to it, as the golden fabrics from which most of the caps were made were until then the privilege of royalty and nobility. More strikingly, the work to make these elaborate caps was so specialized and demanding of great expertise that the women making them were able to support entire families with their craft. Different from the bonnets in the Strude series, which were characterized by a functional conception (protecting the women from the elements), those appearing in the Guldnakke series share an ambition: they signify the ostentation of wealth. They have the same particular shape with five ribs that are pulled together with a string that closes the bonnets at the back of the head. The ends of the string hang down, often casting shadows on the neck and contrasting with the tiny locks of hair that escape from under the hats.
Again the decorative headgear gets all the attention, for the girls look away and are sometimes totally invisible, and so we are led to think of another painter who, doubtlessly inspired by Vermeer, focused on the backs of women, rather than using them to establish eye contact. Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916)—a great predecessor of Søndergaard, and, in my conception of “preposterous history,” a respondent to her—seems to allow Søndergaard’s radical abduction of Vermeer’s perfect painting to present—rather than re-present—the labor of patient, perfectionist craft as an example of the nobility of work.12 Hammershøi, too, seems to have preferred showing women from the back (figs. 12–14).
Like Vermeer’s, his women seem engrossed in activities of various kinds, frequently reading, most of them slow and silent—a form of stasis. Where Vermeer would have a woman seen from the back making music on her virginal, Hammershøi’s virginal stands idle, the woman busy reading next to it. Unlike both Vermeer and Søndergaard, he presents the women bare-headed. But the first, given her white apron, is clearly a servant, and if she is reading, she may be failing in her duties. The second may be entirely idle, perhaps asleep, while the third is doing, literally, something on the side. She stands behind and beside the unused virginal, as straight as the back of a chair, assimilated as another piece of the neatly disposed furniture. Again, the image and its composition overdetermine the picture and what it presents. And again, the craft of painting, deployed to present, strives to achieve a perfection that honors the work in the clothing, the furniture, and the composition of the interiors while it ennobles the invisible activity of reading.
Something, in Søndergaard’s Guldnakke images, as in those of the Strude series, relates to a desire for perfection. Here, the insistence on gold (though sometimes silver, but always precious metal) both in the title and in most of the images, foregrounds what Strude left subtly understated. In economic terms, gold stands for perfection, the durability of value. And if gold’s economic value has coincided throughout history with its aesthetic value and decorative success, this is surely not a coincidence. The overdetermined value of gold resonates most forcefully with situations in which it is abducted, whether it is stolen, falsified, or imitated. Or, as in the case of the wearers of guldnakke bonnets, it has been appropriated to compete, through work, with the high status of those who were simply born with it. The differences between a golden coin or object and these headdresses are offset by similarities. Here gold is not shiny; it is worked over. Its endurable value is made, not found.
In Guldnakke #1, shades of golden colors are juxtaposed and combined for maximal chromatic effect (fig. 15). While the string shaping the ribs is of the same color as the woman’s hair, another ribbon, which is partly a brace, hangs down in a straight line, parallel to a darker piece of fabric that might be a ribbon for tying the hat in front, and curves down behind the (invisible) ear, almost but not quite joining at the neck. Elaborately embroidered fabric forms the solid back of the cap, and an equally elaborate woven piece separated from the back by a dark band displays the many ways in which work can become craft can become art. The contemporary top the model is wearing, decorated with a simple, regular pattern on the front and sleeve while remaining plain on the back, contributes to this feast of ornamentation. Against a grayish-brown background, the skin of the model also appears golden, as do the wisps of hair that escape the cap. The colors match so perfectly that it seems impossible to say if the line at the middle-right of the neck is simply the line of the neck, a wisp of hair, or the string.
As a picture, the sense of balance is extremely subtle. This figure is placed slightly off-center, if we don’t count the dark ribbon, but if we do, she is almost centered. This difference produces a delicate balance, one that reiterates the balance of the ornamental ribbon hanging down parallel to the larger dark one and then curving backwards. In terms of depiction, a similar delicate balance brings life to the pose, and thus qualifies the idea of stasis as utterly delicate and unstable. With her left shoulder to us, her face turns away more, as if her stasis might be jeopardized if, by our intrusive gaze, we were to force her to turn away more drastically, perhaps even disappear. The picture presents a figure caught in the irresolvable tension between stasis and movement. For now, stasis wins. And we can begin to see the point of it if we consider the tension as being that between an image and the disturbance of immodest, uninvited curiosity.
As we already saw in Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, the chromatics of gold is particularly suited to being combined with that other classical color, blue. This is not only due to the color combination itself, but also to the long tradition of the association of blue with holiness, virginity, and sacred motherhood in pictures of Christian mythology. The girl in Guldnakke #4 (fig. 16), her head very slightly inclined to the right, has two ribbons of a somewhat lighter blue than that of her transparent blouse which hang straight down from the front of her bonnet, supposedly framing the girl’s face. Again her hair seems golden, moving toward ginger, and the skin of her neck goes from golden at the upper left to pinky-white at the lower right. And again her shoulders, either moving slightly or just frozen in a precarious stasis, are in tension with her head, which is so emphatically turned directly away from the picture plane.
Julia Kristeva famously wrote about blue in the work of Giotto and Bellini as the gearshift, as it were, between figuration and abstraction, making that opposition between the two preposterously obsolete:
Thus all colors, but blue in particular, would have a noncentered or decentering effect, lessening both object identification and phenomenal fixation. They thereby return the subject to the archaic moment of its dialectic, that is, before the fixed, specular “I”, but while in process of becoming this “I” by breaking away from instinctual, biological (and also maternal) dependence.13
I am less interested in the somewhat cliché-like association, via Mary, between blue and maternity as I am in the tendency toward the abstraction—what Kristeva calls the decentering—of colors. She singles out blue, and in its combination with gold, which is showcased in Søndergaard’s Guldnakke series, this seems to make sense. Rather than nearly monochrome, as the previous image with its tones of gold appeared to be, Guldnakke #4 seems rigorously bi-chromatic. And as if to confirm Kristeva’s point about decentering, the background color here, although formally identical to the other one, now seems to waver between chocolate brown and navy blue.
Not all guldnakke bonnets are made of golden fabric. But even those that are not display a level of detailed craft that is astounding in any image. The bonnet in Guldnakke #6, in which the sitter’s head is turned to the right, displays a large, dark band of fabric that covers the girl’s head entirely (fig. 17). The embroidered back, completely filled, as if in response to a Baroque horror vacui, with flowers, and in the middle, either a larger flower or a lady bird, petals coming off the surface and feelers ending in what could be a pearl—it is all in addition, an increase of luxury in something that is already luxurious. The string that holds the ribs together, which is as black or navy as the velvet part of the bonnet, casts a shadow that falls exactly down the nape of the girl’s neck. The frayed endings, like insects, cast their own shadows. And what these pieces of string traverse, in a vertical manner, is a horizontally striped red-and-blue top. The stripes are not printed on the fabric; they are bands of braided fabric, showing their volume as if they were the gigantic warp and woof of a weaving event, and they are not straight. They undulate horizontally as the string curls vertically. Thus, the guldnakke from the past literally bisects the very different, but equally beautiful and equally valuable garment from the present.
This girl turns her head to the right more sharply than the others. Is it in order to catch the light on her earring, which creates an implausible and, in this series, extremely rare patch of white a bit to the right of center? This patch of white, denoting silver, in turn casts into the shadow of increased visibility the darker, perhaps blue, perhaps green pearl hanging below it and completing the earring. Whatever the artistic motivation for this incongruous white patch, the combination of the turned head, the back of the bonnet overflowing with densely packed flowers, and the relaxed waves of blue and red of the top make this an image of the invisibility of a face. Precisely because we see a fragment of the face but without any of the usual features—no eyes, no nose, no mouth, just a patch of skin—the picture becomes a presentation of invisibility.
Like Hammershøi’s women, none of Søndergaard’s are doing anything. This is why the picture foregrounds work: not the work of the figures in the picture but of the making of them, as wearers of the result of ambitious craft. The stillness of these images of stasis now inexorably brings to mind the genre of still life. In the images, there is nothing but still, detailed beauty. In the picture, all traces that might lead to the presentation of something or someone specific are silenced. Still life, a genre which flourished in the seventeenth century and the French call nature morte, is the genre par excellence of the very tension Søndergaard’s artworks produce: life, but still; death, but nature. Moreover, still life as a genre contains both the modest bodegas of, say, Cotán in the Spanish tradition of humble gratefulness for the produce of the earth as well as the ostentatious type, more common in the Dutch tradition, in which ambitious painters such as de Heem rivaled the craft of glassmakers and silversmiths—instead of religious humility, economic boasting. Unlike the old masters that Søndergaard’s work so insistently invokes, these pictures, which present the invisibility of so much visibly present work: craft, labor, patient devotion, zeal, as an homage to simply that—work.14
Life as Still
In the third of Hammershøi’s paintings I brought into the comparison above, the woman standing next to a virginal, reading rather than making music, breaks an otherwise insistent symmetry. Two framed pictures hang above the instrument; the chair stands right in the middle of it. If the woman were not there, we can imagine, the picture would shift to the right, and become symmetrical again. This painting, it so happens, is titled Interior. Another painting, titled Interior with Ida in a White Chair (fig. 18), also showing a woman seen from the back, plays with symmetry and can help us see the connection between the series discussed so far and the third series of works presented in this book. In this work, Hammershøi depicted a woman sitting just to the right of the starkly perspectival corridor leading to the painting’s vanishing point, on the edge between a door window and another doorway that partly blocks the view. The light coming in from the back—from beyond the vanishing point—blurs the image, as if the artist were rivaling photography. As the work of a painter, this blur is the result of a choice as conscious as the one that led Bellini to paint the patches of blue in his Madonnas. Similarly, the white patch that extends from the back to the wall with the open door makes the image lively and the picture realistic, photographic. Yet, it is itself veering toward abstraction. The white chair is identical to the one in Hammershøi’s Interior. The picture is of a woman reading at what appears to be a black table, and the image is auditively still. One can imagine a silence-enhancing ticking of a clock. Such ticking can be deadly; it hammers out the passing of time, yet it becomes louder as a space grows silent, and stasis reigns. Søndergaard discusses with Vermeer and Hammershøi what stasis means, and what it does with “life.”15
Hammershøi’s Interior with Ida in a White Chair depicts silence as such stasis. The woman, her neck bent, dressed in a long, dark dress without a golden bonnet, sits still on a chair that, like the guldnakke bonnets, has ribs joining together at the base of the chair’s back. No clock is depicted, but the almost exclusively black-and-white chromatics of the image, the lack of activity, and the work’s silent yet incomplete symmetry together convey something akin to a ticking clock. And this, I contend, is what Søndergaard’s works of the Interiors series do, but more starkly. The ticking clock, then, stands for stasis and duration bound together.
The closest we come to the nineteenth-century painting—and its seventeenth-century interlocutors—is Interior #4 (fig. 19). There is no woman in this space, but door after door leads inexorably to a vanishing point that, again, is disturbed, this time not by light coming from the back but by the door that, standing ajar, is able, at any moment, to let in either light or a person. Like the painting, this photographic image is muted in color. Yet because of that modesty, the colors that are present gain in strength: near-green in the left foreground, yellow on the walls into which the doors are cut—yellow, almost golden, with white trim. Those hues and tones, together with lines and shades of light, produce the volume that two-dimensional photography cannot make. The extreme depth generated by the successive doors, all standing open, enhances the work’s miraculous trompe-l’oeil effect.
Although Søndergaard’s Interiors are pictures presenting abandoned buildings, as images they do nothing of the sort. Instead, they seem accidentally empty, as if the inhabitants or users could return at any moment, even if this possibility for a return seems irrelevant anyway. True, the floors are bare, wooden planks. But the walls and doors seem impeccably clean and neat. Hammershøi’s Ida could live here. But no, that sounds wrong as well. Because of the absence of human beings, these interiors raise the question of space in absolute terms. What matters is the bare essence of space, of the architecture that gives it form and delimitation. Walls, vistas, light; wood, plaster, paint. These spaces are indeed in “stasis.” But then, what is the meaning of that word? The probing search begun in Strude and Guldnakke continues. Is stasis permanent, temporary, or fugitive? Is the “life” of “still life” the death of nature or a life stilled? And is the duration of the photograph endless or a split second? These are not photographs of the aftermath of disaster; they depict no traces of violence perpetrated against the spaces’ inhabitants. More simply and more forcefully, they question the duration of and in the photograph—as image and as picture.
To understand the strength of the non- or even anti-commemorative thrust of these images, Interior #17 seems to offer a powerful statement against such a traditional conception (fig. 20). This is one of the rare photographs of the series that clearly does bear traces of a past. The smudges on the wall in the corner could be caused by repeated use, careless squatters, or even someone imprisoned trying desperately to escape. But these traces are meaningless for the picture. There is no window or even a light effect that suggests its offscreen presence. The smudges are just that: dirty patches. The image of the corner, emphasized by the mat, entices us to speculate about past disasters, especially in a culture, like that of today, where the representation of violence and war is such a burning issue. But the picture just teases us; the image makes any speculation futile. The windowless corner could just as easily have served for bicycle storage. The image closes the space off, just as the girls turning their faces away do. This awareness that our search for meaning is futile confronts us more forcefully with the sense of space and architecture. It makes us realize that the lives we tend to project onto the image are not relevant to this
moment, this image, because they would distract us from seeing. This, then, is a spatial still-life. All we have is stasis.16
Between Visibility and Invisibility
We are confronted with a visual presentation of invisibility—of the figure supposedly temporally or spatially near the image, or in it but turning away. Instead of traces of the past, I am seeking to find in these images agency in the present, but, if such a thing is possible, agency without an agent. To understand this absence–presence, the kind of agency it probes, and the affected state of the viewer this causes, I turn to two concepts that attempt to theorize the agency of art.
Psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas’s concept of the “unthought known” denotes something we know but do not reflect on.17 My favorite passage in his work is: “I often find that although I am working on an idea without knowing exactly what it is I think, I am engaged in thinking an idea struggling to have me think it.”18 The “unthought known” is not-yet-thought; the thinking is in process but not yet completed; it is happening in the present, in Krakauer’s present time, in the unique, performative moment, and it is propelled toward a future. Most importantly, it happens in relation to the object—the artwork, in our case. That process of the unthought known occurs not inside the subject but between the subject and the potential ideas that are present in their incipient stages and ready to be thought. This, I submit, is the kind of “thought” in visuality, the agency of images, presented by the picture, that Søndergaard manages to invoke in the form of stasis. It requires the participation of the viewer to “make sense” of what is visible, but also of what is so emphatically invisible.
Cultural theorist Kaja Silverman offers a theory of the image that is close to Bollas’s unthought known.19 But whereas Bollas is writing about people, Silverman’s theory concerns visual practices. Hers is also a theory of photography, of dreams, of memory, and of subjectivity, and should thus be perfectly suited to engaging with images like Søndergaard’s. The key term for the discussion here is “visual habitus.”20 Thanks to this habitus, we are both able to see these images yet also hampered in that visual endeavor because the habitus informs our attempt to make them fit preconceived ideas we bring to them. We have seen this hampering effect when I wrote that something I had written sounded wrong. It is the baggage we bring to the image, which is needed to begin making sense of it but also a screen that precludes seeing novelty.
After a long discussion of such a paradoxical concept as unconscious memories—something easier to understand in connection with Benjamin’s “optical unconscious”—Silverman writes the following:
If, in trying to make sense of this strange account of unconscious memories, I am unable to avoid attributing to them the status of a subject, that is because subjectivity itself is in its most profound sense nothing other than a constellation of visual memories which is struggling to achieve a perceptual form.21
Old traditional headdresses, contemporary young women, and empty buildings abandoned either long ago or just a minute ago: there are memories there, but these belong to no one. Between Bollas’s thoughts struggling to have the subject think them and Silverman’s constellation of visual memories struggling to accede to perception, the shared verb, struggling, suggests we have the elements of what is at stake in stasis: stillness, caught in contradiction; stillness as in “still life”; or something “natural” but “dead.”
On art’s own terms, such stasis produces spaces in which creativity is enabled and encouraged in a collaboration between something from the past but now still or dead and the imagination, something struggling to have us think it. This requires what Silverman calls a “productive look.”22 Her concept of a socially productive act of looking is grounded in a specific vision of looking. Significantly, in connection with Søndergaard’s images it is temporally undefined, yet tightly bound up with time:
The unconscious “time” of any given perception can last as long as a life span, and bring about a much more radical transmutation of values than can its conscious revision. To look is to embed an image within a constant shifting matrix of unconscious memories, which can render a culturally insignificant object libidinally resonant, or a culturally significant object worthless. When a new perception is brought into the vicinity of those memories which matter most to us at an unconscious level, it too is “lit up” or irradiated, regardless of its status within normative representation.23
Herein lies the importance of headdresses from the past, carefully crafted and then carefully presented in pictures, but without the eye contact that could banalize or sentimentalize contact as such, or of buildings empty of users, yet not on their way to destruction. Within a synesthetic conception of vision, memories of smell, taste, and touch are integral to visual memories. As such, they play their part in any connection to visual “takes” that occur in the present. This view explains how such acts of perception can occur on the edge between voluntary acts and unconscious motivation.
The oversized, faded but recognizably American shirt the girl in Guldnakke #11 is wearing reverses time (fig. 21), although not as Barthes would have it. To put it simply, the shirt looks older than the headdress. There is a trap here, however, the avoidance of which requires that the image counter the picture. The extremely detailed presentation of the bonnet may bring comfort to viewers who despise contemporary consumer culture, but the point is not to feed facile social critique. Instead, the muted, autumnal colors of the bonnet are made to become brilliant, to stand out against the shirt turned monochromatic by time. Old and new, valued tradition and careless novelty, are presented here together in a play that challenges our conceptions of color itself. A delicate, precarious balance results—a stasis that is not guaranteed to last. It mobilizes our collaboration in propping it up and making it durable. To those inclined to take the picture as an occasion to rant against consumerism, the image says: not so fast.
The Movement of the Image
Bollas applies to thought and to ideas the metaphor of the struggle to achieve something between “it” (the thought) and the subject, whereas Silverman applies it to memories. Moreover, for Bollas the achievement is thought, while for Silverman it is perceptual form—we could call it visibility. Both ideas and memories have a visual aspect, whereas both are, strictly speaking, invisible. And this invisibility of something visually formed is what ideas and memories have in common with Søndergaard’s images of stasis.
To make the connection work, ideas too must achieve form. This is where figurativity comes in, and where the optical unconscious does its work. It is through images on the edge of visibility—the crafted headdresses, the neatly painted doorways—that we can achieve such a convergence. It is here that the picture—a source of endless associations—comes in to do its cultural work. Bollas explains this potential through the dream, psychoanalysis’s darling and an excellent case of the combination of highly visible and starkly invisible images. It could just as well be embodied by images like Søndergaard’s that hover between figurativity and invisibility: “I regard the dream as a fiction constructed by a unique aesthetic: the transformation of the subject into his thought, specifically, the placing of the self into an allegory of desire and dread that is fashioned by the ego.”24
Desire and dread: this is the affect proposed by images such as Interior #8 (fig. 22). As an image, the open window invites and repulses. As a picture, the structure with its strange oblique and opaque hanging window and the blurry patch of light it casts horizontally on the wooden planks of the floor emanates not desire or dread itself, but an affective intensity that compels us to “do” or “perform” one or the other. The strict square lines of the window, here oblique, and the strictly parallel planks of the floor, here fanning out, wreak havoc with the structural severity they also recall. Here the affective intensity emanates from the way this image disturbs the neatness of most of the images in the same series.
So where does this leave agency? Indeed, Bollas claims that the dreamer is positioned in the dream, in relation to the stage, its director, its actors, props, time frame, and other elements, in ways that make the term “aesthetic” operative. In his account of the dream, Bollas uses the terms of the dream and the theater. This is where a third term, after image and picture, the double term of “photographic artwork,” comes into play. The artistic organization of the space in which the play is set (the dream itself) arranges a limited and delimited section of real time and space—that is, a section of time and space that belongs to the subject and to which the subject belongs. This is what makes us want to step into, and yet compels us to leave well enough alone in, the space of seclusion, both that of the young women and the spatiality of the space itself. Modesty, these works intimate, creates, or allows, the creation of freedom. Yet, how, then, can we simultaneously exercise modesty, respect work but not intrude on the spaces of others, and be aesthetically affected?
What is at stake, and what this book’s title intimates as lying at the heart of its project, is an understanding of the relationship between time and the (still) image. Søndergaard’s book title Stasis begs the question of time in relation to photography. The image of the girl with the faded shirt and the crisply bright bonnet brings the question of time up with unforeseen forcefulness. Here the French philosopher Henri Bergson, a contemporary of the thinkers on photography with whom I began this essay, has ideas to offer that seem helpful in grasping the temporality of stasis. His book Matter and Memory starts with the thesis that perception is not a construction but a selection the subject makes in view of his or her own interests.25
This simple idea has transformed contemporary thinking on representation. For a long time the idea of representation was bound to an opposition between mimesis (seen as imitation) and construction. Perception, in Bergson’s radically different view, is an act of the body and for the body that takes place in the present. It is under the influence of his conception of the image that I have chosen the term presentation instead of representation. Søndergaard’s bare and still images offer an excellent case for reflection on what selection is. Precisely because everything that is visible is crisp and sharp, it is striking that things we, with our visual habitus, tend to consider essential—“human” things such as faces or inhabitants—are invisible. And perception as selection occurs in the present.
However, while occurring in the present, as Krakauer also insisted, perception is bound to memory. A perception image that is not infused with memory images is impossible. This indispensable implication of memory underlies Søndergaard’s integration of traditional historical elements—the bonnets and the buildings—without turning these into historical relics. Even for those unfamiliar with the traditions from which these headdresses stem can see them as memory images—the memories of someone else. At the end of his book, Bergson writes:
In concrete perception memory intervenes, and the subjectivity of sensible qualities is due precisely to the fact that our consciousness, which begins by being only memory, prolongs a plurality of moments into each other, contracting them into a single intuition.26
A plurality of moments: this is a near-synonym of stasis. And this contraction is an event of the present. The final part of Bergson’s sentence explains why all through his work, he insists so strongly upon duration, but duration not as a narrative stream; duration itself is a thing of the present. As Gilles Deleuze wrote in Bergsonism, “Bergsonian duration is … defined less by succession than by coexistence.”27
That coexistence of different moments (or memories) has a spatial aspect to it, and this timespace is given shape in what is in front of the turned-away faces in Søndergaard’s works, there where we cannot see. It is also tangibly present in images such as Interior #10 (fig. 23), where the door standing ajar suggests something might be on its other side, but this may inspire, again, both dread and desire. The beauty of the image comes from the division of dark and bright patches that are almost, especially in the darker parts, abstract. The poignancy—the affective charge—comes from the door handle being slightly pushed down, the keyhole underneath it, and, we note upon closer inspection, the decorative work on the door itself. The woodworking brings a memory of work into the present where these things all coexist. This is consistent with Bergson’s conception of the image as well as of duration.
According to Bergson, space is not geometrical, as in Renaissance perspective; consequently, it is neither measurable nor identical for everyone who perceives it. Instead, our sense of space develops according to what Bergson calls a “natural feeling.” This natural feeling, which can be considered a spatial habitus, is heterogeneous and different for everyone, depending on where they are. Like duration, Bergsonian space can be neither divided nor measured. In Time and Free Will, Bergson calls this space “extensity,” seeing it as something that emanates from the subject.28 Søndergaard’s Interior #12 (fig. 24) takes this idea on, probes it, and enters into a preposterous dialogue with it. Where, then, this image asks, is the place for the subject who, in selecting what to see, extends his or her body in that act of selecting, and hence of perceiving? The perspectival structure of the image does suggest the subject is “extending” toward the image. But as I have argued above, the image is not divisible. Here, this means that the extension does not simply go from the lower edge to the blind window at the other end, for the image is always already “with” the subject. This is why the window at the end, while having a “worked” top portion, is also blind; there is no clear vanishing point. The strange irregularity that intervenes in the apparent regularity, due to some difference in height but also to the alternating of blue and golden light, disturbs the ease with which we could otherwise assume we were looking “into” the space. It makes the space tangible; it gives it three-dimensionality. And it gives it “life,” as if someone were walking toward the luminous window at the end.
This is a detailed work of presentation in which wooden planks and doorways exploit light effects to bring regularity and irregularity together. Søndergaard’s endeavor to bring a picture of stasis to life through a focus on work aligns photography with painting again.
Now I would like to turn to a painting not from the past but from the present, one that responds to photography (fig. 25).29 Here, too, the light effects constitute a major part of the work of painting “after photography.”30 The artist is clearly not rivaling photography; that would be futile. Instead, he is dialoguing with the more modern medium by deploying the older, traditional one to make his point: the work pays homage to photography as an art. The fact that the painting is in black and white suggests as much. Dorion appears to be “gathering” moments or memories from a great variety of moments in the past to make a point about duration that dovetails with Søndergaard’s focus on stasis. Could duration and stasis be identical—two sides of the same coin, then? Only if we keep the materiality of images in sight. Bergson suggests that living in duration is a form of gathering: each moment is accompanied by the memory of preceding ones, not in chronological or causal order. Perception involves both the materiality of objects and of the human body. Bergson considers the body to be a material entity, and he consequently sees perception as a material practice. Given his insistence on the inseparability of time and space, the image is also in movement by definition. In addition, it is material, not because of the support we associate with images, but because the bodily action of mobilizing the image is material. Hence, “still” images also move, and photographs are just as material as paintings. No stasis can undo this movement. On the contrary, I contend that Søndergaard’s artworks establish their stasis on the basis of that movement.
Because the image—as an assemblage, based on gathering, of both perception in the present and the memory of the past—is necessarily in movement, any
answer to W. J. T. Mitchell’s question “What is an image?” needs to account for the movement inherent in the image as such.31 And if we add to this the second meaning of moving as emotionally—or rather, as I have suggested, affectively—stirring, we can see that the artworks function not in spite of but thanks to their stasis, their emptiness, their insistence on invisibility. Bergson’s thinking posits that at the basis of the image is the movement inherent in perception, and Søndergaard replies that this can be made visible in stasis. The image itself is always both moving and material. It implies that it is plural and functional—it does something. Today, we call it performative. The performance it triggers is best served, Søndergaard appears to intimate, by stasis, so that the viewer can fully and quietly deploy the moving qualities of the selected image, feeling his or her participation in its deployment. Everything that is not there, not visible, matters as much as what is. This brings us to the opposite end of the spectrum from the depressive image. The refusal of intersubjectivity serves not an indifference to action, as in depression, but its opposite.
Invisibility in Order to See
In 1907, Bergson coined the term “creative evolution” to describe yet another type of movement.32 It occurs when understanding and action are interwoven, as tightly as the flowers of Søndergaard’s headdresses. Without such an understanding we would be powerless to effect change, and art would be politically impotent. This additional Bergsonian movement, the readiness to act, lies at the heart of the political potential of the (figurative) image. This is a subject of great interest to me, since I refuse to relegate art to the domain of luxury, entertainment, or selfish contemplation. At the same time, I resist the use or abuse of art for political propaganda.
An artist like Søndergaard—who made a photo book devoted to images of prostitution (Now That You Are Mine, 2002), which fits well with her interest in the different layers of work—cannot be accused of promoting the former attitude, which cultivates social indifference. The photographs in that early book are often harsh, sometimes tender, and sometimes, like the final image, show the cutting edge between lovemaking and rape that prostitution ultimately is. The can of worms of the interconnections between economy and sex is slightly opened, but never is the artist herself without complicity, at a safely objectifying distance; nor does she point a moralizing finger. And the same artist who made the brilliant, beautiful book How to Hunt (2011) with Nicolai Howalt cannot be suspected of judgmental, propagandistic proselytizing either. Not one of the images in a book on so controversial an activity passes judgment. All that the eerily beautiful, almost monochromatic images of painterly landscapes in this book do is insistently keep us aware of the collusions we are all involved in when looking at, or otherwise using, the results of “shooting”: with camera, gun, or paintbrush, or just our eyes.
It may seem far-fetched to allege that such artworks are similar to the quiet, static photographs in the present book, which appear to resist all idea of movement in favor of an action-oriented politics of vision. Yet this becomes more plausible once we realize that seeing is also action, and that these works are all keenly geared to make us see—both what is visible and what is not. To conclude, I would like to discuss three more works, one from each series presented in this book. The composition of the triptych of three door openings with rounded lintels and no doors, each turned in a different direction, offers three different insights into seeing and its necessary relationship to invisibility (fig. 26). In the one on the left, where the paint on the door is peeling and specks of paint lie on the floor, that floor is littered with the leftovers of a past of which we have seen the limited relevance above. The visible part of this picture is suggestive of age, pastness, and abandonment. But the top, the rounded lintel of the doorway, is too similar to the other two for this difference to predominate. The doorway in the central image of the triptych looks more unharmed, and all that strikes me is the triangular spot on the floor where light and shadow overlap, and the sharp form of a triangle meets the round one of the light the open door lets in. The threshold with its dark, narrow band on the side sharpens our eyes to see that incongruous triangle, and we cannot tell exactly what it is, where it leads, or what it keeps out of sight. Nor can we tell what the traces of wear and tear indicate. The triptych gives neither cause for nostalgic lament nor a militant sentiment about, say, the shortage of housing in the metropoles of the West. Instead, and most importantly, it makes us see what we cannot see. The stasis of the images and the near-abstract shapes resulting from their juxtaposition liberate the imagination to dream of where each of us would like to go from there. Three doorways, as if to indicate openness, lead to nothing we can see. This is a politics of seeing.
The next work I’d like to address is Guldnakke #10 because it is not my favorite of the series (fig. 27). I wonder why, since it has the features I admire so much in the others. The ornate five-ribbed back of the golden cap, the thin piece of string snaking down the nape of the model’s neck, the wisps of reddish-blonde hair protruding as rebellious bits that the bonnet cannot contain—as if in answer to Vermeer’s Girl—and the way the light modulates the skin tones: it is all there. So, what is it that leaves me less than fully enthusiastic about this image? And then I see what makes me just that tiny bit reluctant: it comes from the red, frilly dress the girl is wearing. I dislike frilliness.
This is another case of something sounding wrong. In other words: I fall for the picture and ignore the image. What thereby escapes me is the combination of perfect symmetry in the picture and, simultaneously, the way the light in the image counters this. The image says, after leaving me with the picture for a while, “Look again!”, making me blush for having overlooked all the symptoms of asymmetry. Like the movement in stasis, in the delicacy of the balance. Thus, the image compels a second look, and that look, then, is the action to which the Bergsonian image compels us. After this second look, not much is left of the symmetry.
Finally, Strude #19 is perhaps the most troubling (fig. 28). This seems to be the image of invisibility par excellence. I didn’t know if what we see—the heart-shaped mirror—is the back of someone’s head or the front with all of the face hidden. It is a mirror in which I can see nothing, like the blind window that blurs the vanishing point. Like the image that hides as it reveals. I had to inquire to learn that it is the back of a head, that the mirror symbolizes eyes, the eyes of a bride who wishes to keep an eye on her husband when he thinks she is not looking. If one needs information in order to understand, we are on the edge where memory becomes history.
And this edge may well be the heart of Søndergaard’s work with stasis. The resonances with Vermeer, with Hammershøi—they must come from the artist’s personal-cultural memory, as well as from mine. But such a memory leans on a history where things happened that are not visible. The opaque nature of memory confirms the visual nature of memory and dreams, but it blurs the gaze, which remains caught and suspended in the stasis of memory. There time and space meld together and nothing remains linear. Space and time seem to fold into one another, no longer allowing for a mastering, looking from above, dividing up and controlling, which would be an approach to space that ignores time as well as the density of space’s lived-in quality.
Around all of the mirror-eyes there are three-dimensional flowers, tightly stuffed together in a horror vacui. In these hats used only for the wedding feast, the horror vacui is not a means of protection necessitated by a harsh climate, as it was for the headgear in the Strude series, although for me they nonetheless allude to that function. Might that slight allusion to protection also suggest a means of protection against our immodest gaze, or our expectation that everything is there for us to see, admire, and contemplate? This makes the fleeting association with Islamic burkas less incongruous than it would appear at first sight. Stasis, then, also compels us to look into a mirror, even if there is nothing to see.
- For a classic study of portraiture that takes the individualism and realism of the genre at face value, see Richard Brilliant, Portraiture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991). For an excellent overview of the theoretical and political ins and outs of portraiture, see Ernst van Alphen, Art in Mind: How Contemporary Images Shape Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 1.
- Siegfried Krakauer, “Photography,” trans. Thomas Y. Levine, Critical Inquiry 19, no. 3 (Spring 1993), pp. 421–36, here 422 and 223.
- A more relevant contemporary of our threesome would be Walter Benjamin, who developed the important idea of the “optical unconscious.” I will return to this below.
- Camilla Jalving, “Between Visibility and Invisibility,” in Trine Søndergaard, Strude (Copenhagen: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, 2010), unpaginated.
- On this concept, see Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007). I am currently working on a film and video installation project with Michelle Williams Gamaker on this subject that is based on Flaubert’s prophetic novel Madame Bovary (1856).
- Michel Foucault, This Is Not a Pipe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
- On abstraction and its rich potential for working with color, see Mieke Bal, Endless Andness: the Politics of Abstraction According to Ann Veronica Janssens (London: Bloomsbury, 2013). For the argument against artists’ intentions as an entrance into their work, see Mieke Bal, Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), pp. 253–85.
- Christine Ross, The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and Depression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
- Ibid., pp. 96–97.
- The term “preposterous” foregrounds how in anachronism, what came later (post-) takes precedence (pre-) because we cannot see older art without the screens put between us and it by later interpretations. For this term, see Mieke Bal, Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), and for a different development of some of the same ideas, see the essays in Claire Farago and Robert Zwijnenberg, eds., Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
- See Bal 1999 (as in note 11).
- Julia Kristeva, Motherhood According to Giovanni Bellini (London: Routledge, 1980), quoted in John Lechte, Julia Kristeva (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 132.
- For a fabulous analysis of these different ideological tenets of the genre of still life, see Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).
- I have briefly discussed the question of choice in painting—which is in contrast to photography, which would be compelled to deal with, and include, what is there—in connection with Vermeer’s nails and holes in walls in the introduction to my book on Rembrandt; see Mieke Bal, Reading “Rembrandt”: Beyond the Word–Image Opposition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
- On the cultural politics of violence in relation to art, see: Mark Reinhardt, Holly Edwards, and Erina Duganne, eds., Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); Jill Bennett, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005); and idem, Practical Aesthetics (London: I. B. Tauris, 2012).
- Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis and the Unthought Known (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).
- Ibid., p. 10.
- Kaja Silverman, World Spectators (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 75–100.
- Ibid., p. 89.
- Ibid., emphasis added.
- Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World (New York and London: Routledge, 1996), p. 164.
- Ibid., pp. 3–4.
- Bollas 1987 (as in note 17), p. 64, emphasis added.
- Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory , trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer (New York: Zone Books, 1991).
- Ibid., pp. 218–19.
- Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1988), p. 60.
- Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness , trans. F. L. Pogson (New York: Harper and Row, 1960).
- I thank Thomas Germaine for drawing my attention to Dorion’s painting.
- “Painting After Photography” is the title of an exhibition project I have been considering doing with Ernst van Alphen for some time.
- W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
- Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution , trans. A. Mitchell (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983).